Lawrence McKenzie (Getty)
The Gophers have been close to pulling off upsets in a number of their Big Ten games, but different things have been going wrong for different players, leaving a feeling of frustration while they try to figure out how to win consistently under Tubby Smith.
Tubby Smith was different after the tough home loss to Indiana Jan. 17. He answered questions in the postgame press conference with short, stern responses. The frustration clearly showed through.
But he’s not alone. Senior forward Spencer Tollackson can’t figure out how to hit big free throws in big games, and it cost the team.
Senior guard Lawrence McKenzie has a bruised shooting hand that gets bumped every game. But he’s more perturbed by his other teammates’ lack of support down the stretch, a lapse that’s forced him to take carry more weight.
And freshman guard Blake Hoffarber, the Big Ten’s best three-point shooter, has been visibly upset that the Gophers aren’t looking his way enough when he’s behind the arc. And his coach forgot to put him in during a crucial moment against Indiana, to the bewilderment of most at Williams Arena on that night.
All of it points to a squad with few answers for its inconsistent play, and it all starts at the top with Smith.
But it’s clear through 17 games that the Gophers are still trying to find themselves. Halfway through the season, however, is a bad time to do be searching.
PG Lawrence McKenzie has averaged 11 points per game, down from last season, but since the team’s win at Penn State Jan. 12, he’s poured in 14.6 per game.
SG Blake Hoffarber has had four games with four or fewer attempts from the three-point line — where he’s made 50 percent of his shots — since the team’s home win against South Dakota State Dec. 12. Hoffarber is still figuring out how to get open when teams step up their perimeter defense against him. In the teams two biggest home games so far — against Indiana Jan. 17 and Michigan State Jan. 20 — he attempted to just five three-pointers.
The right leg injury that Al Nolen suffered in practice before the team’s Jan. 20 loss to Michigan State at home is reason for the Gophers to worry. Not only is he the team’s best perimeter defender, he’s also their best game manager. He’s been described as being at just “50 percent” at this point.
Lawrence McKenzie said his bruised right hand is continuing to bother him. He’s been able to play through it, but playing more minutes and taking more shots in recent games hasn’t helped it heal.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters — F Damian Johnson, F Dan Coleman, C Spencer Tollackson, G Lawrence Westbrook, G Lawrence McKenzie. Key Subs — G Al Nolen, G Blake Hoffarber
IN FOCUS: Minnesota’s (12-5 through 17 games, 2-3 in the Big Ten) matchup at Ohio State will set the tone for the second half of the season. After tough losses to Michigan State and Indiana, the Gophers need a win against one of the league’s best. But it won’t come easy. Buckeyes guard Jamar Butler (poise) and freshman big man Kosta Koufos (offensive skills) have the assets for their respective positions that have frustrated the Gophers in the past.
QUOTE TO NOTE: “We look like a million dollars one time and we look like nothing the next; it’s like Dr. Jeckyl and Mr. Hyde sometimes.” – Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith about the team’s inconsistency Jan. 20.
Minnesota 76, Penn State 73
Minnesota 60, Indiana 65
Minnesota 78, Minnesota 73
at Ohio State, Saturday, Jan. 26
at Michigan, Thursday, Jan. 31
vs. Wisconsin, Sunday, Feb. 3
at Northwestern, Wednesday, Feb. 6